Lesson 5: Democracy and the Mixed Regime

5.1 Terminology and Reality of Democracy, Oligarchy and Mixed Regime

When Aristotle considers democracy to be a bad regime, he is not in fact "anti-democratic" in the modern sense of the term. He has mind the partial extreme form of rule by the many at the expense of any other claim. What we call democracy he would call "polity" or mixed regime. Aristotle's notion of mixed regime can be found in Politics IV.9 and V.8,9.

The middle books (IV - VI) of the Politics are practical. Book III was about the general legitimacy of the claims to rule. Books VII - VIII are about the best regime and the fine and noble things. In between we find the practical books are about actual regimes, and further how to restrain the brutality of politics. That is, they address themselves to the problems of civil war and tyranny. Thus, Aristotle states his project as follows: we must study what is the best possible regime given certain conditions and what regime is best for the general run of people. One does not give Olympic training to an overweight businessman as Jaffa remarks, but some exercise is appropriate. Political stability comes through a moderation of claims to rule. Extremism brings about civil war, undermines political life, and brings about tyranny. Let us begin with the moderation of faction: stability.

Most regimes are oligarchies or democracies - why is this, and what does this mean? The diversity of regimes is based on the diversity of parts within a regime. Regimes vary as much as one can vary the form or arrangement of rule among the parts. Which part predominates and rules? This makes for a regime. "There must therefore be a many constitutions (regimes) as there are modes of arranging the distribution of office according to the superiorities and the differences of the parts of the polis" (p. 161). The parts include as "superiorities" - wealth, good birth, merit, and as differences among the many or the common folk - farmers, traders, mechanics, and artisans. There are also warriors, perhaps to be included as superiority. There are lawyers and rulers too. Now these parts can be combined in many different ways. Some people can be more than one - farmer-warrior; trader-rich; etc. The variation will greatly show variation in regime as a way of life - democracy of farmers, or mechanics; oligarchs of money, of birth, of merit; warrior regimes like Sparta etc. We move from politics into what is now covered by "sociology". But the refinements are traced to and controlled by the political and the ethical (on the soul in action). How to mix parts as we said above is for the practical wisdom of statesman, 1291 b 1 (p. 166). Aristotle is helping statesman mix and weave the parts most justly.

A truism begins our analysis - one cannot be rich and poor at the same time. And wealth is a very important factor, one of the major causes of faction and revolution, as we see in Bk V, and by considering history. This split of rich and poor and their mutual opposition and antagonism gives rise to the two most common regimes - oligarchy - rule by rich, for rich; democracy - rule by poor, for the poor. Now these regimes reflect a fundamental purpose or way of life - the oligarchs live for life for wealth (avarice); the democrats take liberty to mean license - do as you please (p. 234), thus encourage an intemperate life, a life of the body as much as the oligarchs.

Aristotle recommends a middle class, those with a moderate and adequate amount of property. The middle class is a mean between two extremes and serves as a natural basis for polity or mixed regime. Compare those of the middle class with those who stand in excess or defect with respect to wealth, strength, nobility, connections. Extremes become unreasonable, while the mean is reasonable. Aristotle says the middle class is more virtuous because excessive power, money leads to serious crime, violence (such as Mafia, white collar crime). But a defect of power, wealth leads to petty crime. Next, the middle class is more open to political virtue - rule and be ruled in turn; whereas excess of wealth or power leads one to be spoiled and undisciplined, hence they always want to rule and never follow lead of another; they must always act as a master; but the defect leads to an attitude that is mean and poor spirited, degraded, and thus unable to rule, and a slavish mentality. Finally the middle class can encourage friendship and cooperation. Graduations of have/have not, establishes more similarity (rich of poor, poor of rich). Politics needs such friendship and unanimity - rule of equals and peers. Compare the extremes - those with excess show contempt of their lowers, and in turn become the object of envy and hate; while those in a deficit are full of envy of the higher and covet their goods. The conclusion is that the extremes tend to crime, master/slave relation, faction or sharp division of rich and poor. These factors upset political stability, and ultimately do away with political freedom as well. That is, they tend to tyranny. Middle class can temper the extremism. We must next turn to the dynamic whereby the oligarchy and democracy verge down toward tyranny or up toward polity.

As a side note -- Aristotle does not dwell on the ethical basis of democracy and oligarchy, i.e. lives dedicated to the pursuit of wealth or the pursuit of pleasure. He would leave that to the ethics. He does dwell on their political justice. As we shall see in lesson eight, justice is based on the idea of equality - but equality has two meanings - there is simple numerical equality 1 to 1; and there is proportionate equality, 2 to 4 as 6 to 12. The formal alone is not enough - one must consider the person and matter - equal in what respect? Thus the Oligarch and Democrat take one side of justice and push it to an extreme. Their idea of justice is correct as far as it goes - but it is partial and cannot go all the way without incurring in justice. (See Bk. III.9 politics) (and also V.1)

5.2 Dynamic of Regimes O-D T-P

Chart 5.1 The Dynamic Arrangement of Political Regimes

Instability in Political Life. Extremism is the result when the partial idea of justice is pushed too far and the limited claim to rule is unbalanced. Here we find the brutal side of politics - civil war and tyranny - with the destruction of political life. Simply put, good politics must strive for moderation and the mean between two extremes - this is a polity or mixed regime. On the ground of moderation, the fine side of politics may flourish. One must keep a sense of proportion (p. 232, 331).

The dynamic of politics is that oligarchy and democracy tend towards tyranny and the destruction of stability and freedom, that is towards the factional violence and silence of civil war. Consider this chart. Can the two basic regimes be elevated to moderation and protection of freedom and stability by way of mixture? Or must they descend towards tyranny?


At a certain point the wealthy or the poor become arbitrary in rule, overturn all law and become tyrannical. Politics is lost. How does this happen in a democracy? Demagogues rise up and encourage people to overturn law and the people as a whole act as a tyrant through popular decree (168). Such is "extreme democracy." How does it happen in an oligarchy? A small circle becomes a clique or dynasty takes over and rules absolutely, disregarding law. Or each faction may provoke a CIVIL WAR - called revolution by Barker. Any faction that charges things or causes great disturbances, this includes both popular uprising, coup de etat, power grabbing by faction. Faction destroys common good and often leads to violence. Aristotle lays out general causes or principles of sedition - it ultimately stems from a passion for equality (a) - equals are treated unequally, thus inferiors want to be treated equally or (b) - unequals treated equally, thus superiors want to be treated unequally. The great question is treated equally or unequally about what? Aristotle observes revolution often comes from questions of honor and wealth, that is, seeking profit or honor and avoiding loss and dishonor. These are the motivating factors. Note - honor and wealth create discord and faction because they cannot be easily shared. Wealth cannot be had in common - it is appropriated as thine or mine ultimately. Like the body, it is private. See Augustine on this issue (On Free Choice of the Will, or Dante Purgatory, cantos on envy). And if scarcity prevails - then there must be struggle and war. So too with honor. Everybody cannot be honored; if one is honored, then he is above the others. Thus honor is somewhat exclusive and "scarce," if you will, like wealth. CF. Hobbes wants to eliminate honor from political competition and yet protect wealth, but increase it for all. But moderns seek to overcome scarcity of wealth and eliminate honor, and thereby achieve political stability. Aristotle has a keen historical sense - the occasions of sedition are many - could be quite trifling - but the stakes, as noted above, are never so trifling. He finds insolence, fear, superiority, contempt, disproportionate growth all as causes for civil war. Specific causes are work in Oligarchy and Democracy. Thus in Democracies we find the work of demagogue's immoderate action which then will stir up people against rich, notables (2) provoke rich, notables through false accusations, excessive burdens, confiscations - and thereby provoke a reaction. In Oligarchy, the immoderate action of clique or dynasty with palace coups - personal rivalries, or excluded wealthy, cause dissension or may provoke popular uprising due to the corruption of few and abuse of many.

The great task is that of stabilizing regimes, which involves moving towards polity. Here are Aristotle's basic principles for stability - the stronger element should be for regime but as many elements as possible should be blended in. Again this calls for prudence of statesman. It calls for proportion again, and is not set in a formula. (IV. 12). As Jaffa so well explains, we need to combine quality (free birth, good birth, wealth, virtue) and quantity (numbers). If the strength of the superiority (quality) balances out lack of numbers (quantity), then oligarchy should be the basis. If it doesn't balance - then Democracy should be the basis for the regime. Try for best, given circumstances. Once center is found, then one must strive to include others and show respect for the opposed principle. See Simon on mixed regime (pp 105-108). Thus the polity fuses O and D and it will at its best look like both and neither (177). It is a mean between two extremes - more just and stable. Practical rules of thumb are - democrats should spare rich, oligarchs should help the poor. Also seek to combine complementary rules, or take the mean of rules, or mix up rules for votes, for office qualification etc. See Aristotle IV.7 e.g. fine rich, but pay poor for attending court.

A very important factor of course is the need for law and decency (V.8-9). Law makes for moderation and fairness. Other recommendations are be careful about honor and money; avoid deceits and rivalries and disproportion. Consider, yes, term limits - so that tyrants cannot emerge. Adjust for inflation/deflation of sizes of populations and representation. Watch social customs that contradict regime principle. Keep private gain away from office (see B. Franklin on this and compare with Aristotle p. 228). Spare the opposing group and be careful about oaths (p. 233). Ultimately a stable and free regime needs those men who have the qualities for a good statesman (Aristotle p. 231): loyalty to the regime; a natural capacity; and most of all good character. Aristotle elaborates on many practical devices. But the most practical and important of all for maintaining political stability is education (V.9), p. 233. The citizens need good habits and good teaching. The citizens need at least a citizen virtue whereby the regime is perpetuated. See Lincoln's very important speech, the Lyceum Speech, on this very issue. Thus in Lesson 9 we shall return to this very important issue of education and the political regime.

5.3 Aquinas on Best Regime

Aquinas also argues that the mixed regime is the best form of government overall. In this remarkable selection from the Summa (I-II 105, a. 1) he combines Aristotle and the Bible to make his case. Although Aquinas does favor monarchy, he acknowledges in this passage the need to balance its claim with that of the few and the many.

5.4 Federalist as Mixing of Elements; Tocqueville

On the issue of the mixed regime and the balancing of opposed principles it is useful to study the US Constitution and the Federalist papers. The regime is said to be a Republic not a democracy (Fed 10) precisely because representation acknowledges the principle of excellence. The division of powers and the bi-cameral legislature also provide a certain type of mixing. Tocqueville also comments on the need to balance the sheer weight of numbers and to counter the pull of mediocrity. Without attention to these matters he fears that modern democracy will transform themselves into a soft tyranny.


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